Commentary on Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]
For years I have wondered whether the Christmas Eve sermon is of any consequence.
I suspected preachers are better off reading or telling Luke’s account of the Nativity of our Lord really well, and allowing the carols, the candles, and Christ incarnate in bread and wine to proclaim the “good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
Then I was invited to offer this reflection. Since I am not scheduled to preach on Christmas Eve, I asked myself what I wanted to hear. I find myself hungering for a word that will startle me in the same way the angel’s announcement startled the shepherds. As a listener, I determined that the Christmas Eve sermon is only of any consequence if it is more consequential than “sleep in heavenly peace” because “Christ the Savior is born.”
So what is such a word? I’ve heard preachers justifiably bash economically powerful celebrations of Christmas. Indeed, Luke acknowledges and then turns away from the structures of political power — Augustus and Quirinius. We are proud to proclaim that emperors, governments, laws, and world orders are trumped by and rendered servants of God’s saving purpose.
But there is more. Reading the Christmas story in context, I realized that Luke nods in the direction of and turns away from religious as well as political power — the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas (Luke 3:2). The word of God didn’t go to church. The angel’s announcement of the fulfillment of prophecy goes not to the Temple but to shepherds living in the fields, and the word of God came to John not in his father Zechariah’s office in the Temple but out in the wilderness.
So I imagine hearing the startling word that, if we want to experience the newborn Christ, and we take Luke’s account seriously, the last place to be on Christmas Eve is in church, because Jesus is being born where people need him most.
So, I imagine the preacher inviting us to spend Christmas Eve — physically or spiritually — neither in the glow of a tree-lit sanctuary nor the sentimentality of carols and candles nor the warmth of the family hearth, but in the fields of the isolated, the disenfranchised and the forgotten, or in our own painful places of spiritual wilderness, because God speaks the good news of Christ’s coming there. God brings great joy to those who need it most there. And God does even more.
“In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Luke 2:8-9). We for whom the church holds a central place sometimes look upon the shepherds as “outsiders.” I’ve portrayed the shepherds as desperate to hear and receive and own the Christmas Gospel.
By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits. The religious establishment took a particularly dim view of shepherds since the regular exercise of shepherds’ duties kept them from observing the Sabbath and rendered them ritually unclean. The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes, persons who were “sinners” by virtue of their vocation.
I have come to regard God sending angels to shepherds as bigger than reaching out to outsiders. Spend enough time in the field, shunned by decent and religious folk, disappointed by God, or overwhelmed by grief, and we stop caring that we are outsiders. We give up trying to get inside religion, or even on God, to get on with life. But God does not give up on us. God sends angels to people who have given up on God. How would you respond to God sending angels to you when you’d given up on God? Like the shepherds, I’d be terrified.
But in Jesus, God comes in a way that is far from frightening. Jesus comes vulnerably, helplessly, as “a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (2:12). Jesus is born like any other baby, except Jesus is born on the road and laid in a feeding trough. No magi at this manger scene. Jesus is born among the lowly and the poor.
And Luke gives no hint that Jesus is anything special: there is no angel over the stable because the angels are over in the field with the shepherds. In fact, Mary and Joseph only hear of angelic activity because the shepherds tell them. Could it be that we who feel responsible for giving birth to the Christ child or to Christmas or to Christmas worship will receive the good news of great joy not from angelic inspiration but from someone sent to us from out in the field?
Yes, the babe born at Bethlehem is about more than reaching out to outsiders. Jesus is born to those who have been outside so long that they have given up on God. We remember the so-called penitent thief, to whom Jesus promised, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” But Jesus also hung with and died with the criminal who kept deriding him (Luke 23:39-43).
Hearing this as I sit in church on Christmas Eve is good news to me because I know and love people who have been outside so long they have given up on God. I know people so down and blue this Christmas that they cannot come to worship. And I suspect your hearers do as well. I suspect that the startling news that, while I sit in worship, God is sending angels out into the fields with good news of great joy, and Jesus is being born among people who have given up on him, will inspire me to sing of joy coming to the world and to sleep in heavenly peace.